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Book of All Saints

Author(s): Adrienne Von Speyr

ISBN13: 9781586171926

Publisher: IGNATIUS PRESS ($)

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  • The mystic von Speyr presents her profound, unique insights into the actual prayer lives of dozens of saints and holy people from the beginning of Christianity to today, insights she gained observing them praying while she was in a state of mystical prayer. Edited by the renowned theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, this amazing spiritual work will help the reader to both participate in the timeless prayer life of the Church, and to learn how the saints prayed.


    Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) was a contemporary Swiss convert, mystic, wife, medical doctor, and author of over sixty books on spirituality and theology. She entered the Church under the direction of the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. The short bio of von Speyr that follows is based on von Balthasars book, First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (Ignatius, 1981), the most detailed and thorough introduction to her life, theology, and work.

    Adrienne was born on September 20, 1902 in the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland into a Protestant family. Her father, Theodor von Speyr was an opthamologist. Her mother, Laure Girard, was the descendant of a family of noted watchmakers and jewelers from Geneva and Neuenburg. Adrienne was the second child. Her sister Helen was a year-and-a-half older. Her first brother, Wilhelm, a physician, was born in 1905 and died in 1978. Her second brother, Theodor, was born in 1913 and was director of a bank in London for many years.

    Adriennes mother scolded her daily; this led to Adrienne forming a strong trust and devotion to God, as well as a recognition of the meaning of sacrifice and renunciation. She also formed a deep relationship with her grandmother, a holy and pious woman. Adrienne also had a devotion to her father, who treated her with mutual respect and understanding, often taking her with him to the hospital to visit sick children. And in her primary school years she began working with the poor and even formed a society with her friends for those living in poverty.

    A very bright student, Adrienne occasionally substituted for one of her teachers who suffered from asthma. It was in her religion classes that she began to sense the emptiness of the Protestantism that was being offered to her. Incredibly, at the age of nine she gave a talk to her classmates about the Jesuits: an "angel" had told her "that the Jesuits were people who loved Jesus totally, and that the truth of God was greater than that of men, and as a result one could not always tell people everything exactly as one understands it in God" (First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, 21). (When she was six years old, Adrienne told Balthasar, she had a mysterious encounter with St. Ignatius while walking up a steep street on Christmas Eve.) In her secondary school years she reproached her religion teacher for failing to discuss other religious beliefs, especially Catholic teachings.

    Adrienne was often sick and had constant backaches that forced her to lie down for long periods of time. She would always become ill before Easter; she explained that it was due to Good Friday. Despite her physical sufferings, she focused on helping others who were suffering, spending time comforting and encouraging hospital patients. Not surprisingly, she went to secondary school with the intention of becoming a doctor, a decision supported by her father but not her mother. And after two years of secondary school, her mother was successful in having her removed on grounds that it allowed too much association with boys. Adrienne then spent a year in an advanced girls school; although unhappy, she met her best friend, Madeleine Gallet. The two of them talked constantly about God, the spiritual life, and how they might convert their classmates.

    Adriennes father permitted her to return to secondary school. Although she was the only girl in her class, she was very popular due to her charm and humor and natural leadership. In November 1917 she experienced a mystical vision, an appearance of Mary surrounded by angels and saints; her later work would always be marked with a deeply Marian character.

    Around this same time she knew, somehow, that her father would soon die. After his death (from a perforated stomach), Adrienne attended both business school and secondary school. In 1918 she suffered a total physical collapse brought on by tuberculosis in both lungs. The doctors believed she would die within a year. She was sent to Leysin; there she was cared for by Charlotte Olivier, a relative by marriage and a doctor. Meanwhile, her mother distanced herself even further from her. Adrienne spent time reading and learning Russian. It was in Leysin, where she would often pray in a cold Catholic chapel, that Adrienne began to see that she was being called to the Catholic Church. There was another physical collapse, followed by a return to school.

    Her mother arranged for a job and a possible husband, but Adrienne resolved to be a doctor; this led to a lengthy period of silence between mother and daughter. She pursued her studies and an internship; in "these and many other experiences," noted von Balthasar, "Adrienne learned to seek the God whom she had not yet succeeded in truly finding by the way of service to neighbor."

    In the summer of 1927 she met a history professor, Emil Dórr, a widower with two young sons. They married, but he died suddenly in 1934. Adrienne had passed her state boards shortly after her wedding; she was the first woman in Switzerland to be admitted to the medical profession. In 1936 she married Werner Kaegi, an associate professor under Dórr who took over his Chair of History at the University of Basel.

    During the next few years Adrienne made several failed attempts to contact Catholic priests to inform them of her desire to convert. In the fall of 1940 she was introduced to Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (then a Jesuit), recently appointed as student chaplain in Basel. She told him of her desire to become Catholic and she was baptized on the feast of All Saints and was soon confirmed. Her family was initially shocked; it would take years for reconciliation to slowly take place. But she formed friendships with many great Catholic thinkers: Romano Guardini, Hugo Rahner, Erich Przywara, Henri de Lubac, Reinhold Schneider, Annette Kolb, and Gabriel Marcel. Her medical practice was very successful; she had as many as sixty to eighty patients a day.

    Von Balthasar wrote that shortly after her conversion, "a veritable cataract of mystical graces poured over Adrienne in a seemingly chaotic storm that whirled her in all directions at once. Graces in prayer above all: she was transported beyond all vocal prayer or self-directed meditation upon in order to be set down somewhere after an indeterminate time with new understanding, new love and new resolutions." This included "an increasingly open and intimate association with Mary" Driving home one night shortly after her conversion, she saw a great light in front of the car and she heard a voice say: Tu vivra au ciel et sur lat terre (You shall live in heaven and on earth). This was "the key to all that was to follow" in her life.

    The years following 1940 were filled with much physical pain (including a heart attack, diabetes, and severe arthritis and, eventually blindness), mystical experiences (including the stigmata), and a close relationship with Fr. von Balthasar, who became her spiritual director and confidant and with whom she helped found a secular institute, the Community of St John. She began to dictate works to Balthasar, including her interpretations of several books of Scripture (the Johannine writings, some of Paul, the Catholic Epistles, the Apocalypse, and parts of the Old Testament). Balthasar wrote, "She seldom dictated for more than half an hour per day. During vacations she would occasionally dictate for two or three hours, but this was rare." The result was some sixty books dictated between 1940 and 1953. "Her spiritual productivity knew no limits," wrote Balthasar, "we could just as well have two or three times as many texts of hers today."

    By 1954 Adrienne was so ill that she had to discontinue her medical practice. She spent hours each day in prayer, knitting clothing for the poor, and reading Bernanos and Mauriac, among other French authors. From her mid-fifties on, she was so ill that physicians wondered how she could remain alive. In 1964 she went blind; her last months were filled with "continuous, merciless torture," said Balthsar, "which she bore with great equanimity, always concerned about the others and constantly apologetic about causing me so much trouble." She died on September 17, 1967, the feast of St. Hildegard, also a mystic and a physician.


    Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to be one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles.

    He studied at universities in Vienna, Berlin, and Zurich and his doctorate was completed in 1928. His dissertation was titled "The History of the Eschatological Problem in Modern German Literature." The following year he entered the Society of Jesus.

    Having studied theology and philosophy for several years, Balthasar was attracted to the work of Erich Przywara (d. 1972) and Henri de Lubac (d. 1991). Tired of the prevalent neo-scholasticism of his day, Balthasar was drawn to the spirituality-theology of the Church Fathers. Along with de Lubac, Jean Dani?®lou, and other Continental theologians, he would work to return to the Scriptures and patristics as primary theological sources.

    In 1940 he was offered a teaching position in Rome, but chose to go to Basel and be a chaplain for students. There he met the mystic Adrienne von Speyr (1902-67); she would become a Catholic under his spiritual direction. Her writing became a major source of inspiration for his writing and he insisted that her work could not be separated from his own. Together they founded the Community of St. John, a "secular institute."

    In 1950 he left the Jesuits; in 1972 he formed Communio: International Catholic Review with Dani?®lou, de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. From 1961-87 he produced his most important work, a trilogy published in fifteen volumes: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. After many years of fighting illness and exhaustion, Balthasar died on June 26, 1988, one day before he was to be made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

    The Holy Father wrote: "All who knew the priest, von Balthasar, are shocked, and grieve over the loss of a great son of the Church, an outstanding man of theology and of the arts, who deserves a special place of honor in contemporary ecclesiastical and cultural life."
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